Season of sadness, season of joy

By Dodge Morgan
It is October and the little Murray Peterson schooner Eagle and I are facing the sad passage that will end our thirty-second summer together. We are such good friends that we tend to take each other for granted.

The day is 40-degree bright and well fed with a southwest wind. But Quahog Bay disguises the weather and I am charmed into preparing poorly for a plan to casually cruise back to Eagle’s winter home in Newcastle, Maine. I depart quickly, neglecting to reef, to put on the working jib, to leave enough daylight time, to don boots and foul weather gear, to bring on board no more than two bananas and an apple for three days living aboard.

As soon as we clear the protection of the bay, hard on the wind, I recognize my neglects. Wave tops roll into the cockpit, filling my shoes and floating a flotsam of fruit, foul weather jacket and chart. The swirling scene tickles my sense of humor and I hear Eagle chuckle too. I abandon a plan to change to the smaller jib when life out on the bowsprit becomes a combination of being the town misfit in a dunking chair and putting one’s right hand in one’s left rear pocket then holding oneself out at arm’s length. What the hell; let the luff lift until we can bear off upon passing Cape Small. Then I see the foresail gaff drop and flog – the peak halyard mast fitting has broken. The time and energy it takes to get the sail down, including three climbs up the mast on the hoops, emphasizes the wages of age.

When we do bear off on a reach I am reminded of the maxim that one should never sail higher on the wind in degrees than one’s age plus 10. “Eagle” puts a bone in her teeth all the way to the Cuckholds, where the sun goes down, my bones chill and I alter my destination from a lonesome Muscongus Bay anchorage to a mooring in Boothbay. That night I wallow in over-civilized things – a motel room, hour-long hot shower, huge, hot dinner and too many drinks socializing with strangers. The next night I spend balled up in a bag at anchor in Seal Cove. My company is several harbor seals, one big gray seal, a raft of eiders and flights of Canada geese barking their way south. And the final sail up the Damariscotta River to Paul Bryant’s Riverside Boat Yard is an old man’s piece of cake. The season-end sadness hits.

I prepare better for the annual sail of Wings of Time to the West Indies with “the body bag crew” (so named because, by tradition now, we carry three survival suits and one body bag for four old codgers). Wings is a big, strong, independent girl who, even in a gale, confronts her crew with such critical decisions as the choice of wine for dinner. We cross the Gulf Stream quickly, warm up considerably and reach Bermuda in 101 hours, just a week before required attendance home for Thanksgiving dinners. There we hesitate because Lenny, a bizarre, eastward-bound hurricane, is heading right into our path south to Tortola. “Wings” stays put in St. Georges and we fly home to family duty.

The passage from Bermuda to Tortola, 835 nautical miles, is usually an easy one with the key issue being at what latitude we will find those wonderful easterly trades. This year, however, the North Atlantic weather is erratic. St. Georges is festooned with boats hesitating on the passage south; they are taking their counsel from “Herb” who broadcasts weather prognostications from Canada. Herb is a better single-sideband social director than a weather forecaster and seems to delight in bad weather a-coming. Lenny has cleared from our rhumbline and the wind is up but out of the north. We take off.

It is a passage for the archive. North wind 15 to 40 feeds us all the way to the British West Indies. Our only chore is on which side of the boat to set the poled-out jib. This is particularly good news since we find early on that we have no main engine; the fresh-water circulating pump has blown its seal. We roll our way down the sixty-fifth meridian on 8- to 10-foot seas and mark the days by the menu of meals we consume; chicken cordon-bleu day, beef stroganoff day, spare ribs day. After 117 hours we are anchored in Soper’s Hole, West End, Tortola.

What a joy it is to follow the sadness of season ending on Eagle with a season beginning on Wings of Time. When did I earn this joy?

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Brunswick, Maine.